A lot of the invites I got from art galleries this year should have been mailed in plain brown wrappers. I guess the one that alerted me to the phenomenon was the postcard showing Mary Ellen Croteau’s underwear. At first it looked as though Artemisia Gallery was exhibiting antique girdles and early 20th-century string bikini underpants. But it turned out Croteau had made jockstraps out of old bras.

And that’s how it went all year. Everywhere I looked I saw sex themes. Obvious ones, subtle ones, seedy ones–even a little love and romance here and there.

What the heck, the galleries were dropping like flies; the economy stank, and sales were down. You can’t blame the artists and dealers for trying the universal sales pitch.

But sometimes, it seems, the gallery honchos tried to camouflage their lusty come-ons with high-toned words and intellectual pizzazz.

For instance, August House Studio sent a press release publicizing its fifth anniversary and the opening of “our summer landscape show and sale.” But the accompanying brochure had nary a landscape. There was a painting of showgirls; one was wearing an extremely short red backless things and a boa. Another painting depicted two very attractive people about to get it on. She was in a strapless dress giving good cleavage.

J. Rosenthal Fine Arts said Louis Marinaro’s bronze sculpture represented his ability to turn mythology into a tangible form. The invite photo showed a bronze sculpture of a female who just happened to be totally nude, with a face and body language that said distinctly, “Ooooh, come up and see me sometime.”

Artemisia said Carolyn Giles’s paintings “expose the psychological conditions of men and women . . . reflecting moods and conditions that are intrinsically human.” The card showed a woman on her back having sex with a small house.

The Cultural Center said Risa Sekiguchi was depicting “isolated moments frozen in time and space . . . the mysterious nature of gesture and the formal arrangement of objects.” The postcard featured a nude backside with lots of arms going in all directions.

I think the moment frozen in time was an orgy.

Then there was a nude blond angel with perky breasts and trim thighs kneeling beside two tulips whose reproductive structures were swollen and magnified. I wonder what the artist, Kirk Reinert, was trying to say. The PR firm hired by the Brandywine Fantasy Gallery, the site of the show, said Reinert is “committed to creating a new mythology for the 20th Century,” focusing on “characters and environments which epitomize our current values and traditions.”

(Gilman-Gruen Galleries also used a nude angel–Gina Litherland’s Lilith’s Nightwalk–to publicize a show called “Surrealist Visions.”)

Over at Gallery 1756, the work of Turkish artist Tayfur Sanliman expressed “the artist’s deep concern with the plight of our environment.” The come-to-the-show painting on the oversized postcard showed a lot of nude bodies racing through swirls of blue, red, and green.

And Joy Horwich Gallery got in on the act with an interesting postcard for Darryl Halbrooks’s show “Twisted Tales.” It pictured a sculptured wall relief of a wizened old Godlike guy with a saw in his hand leering at a couple of weird nudes–a man under a sheet and a woman missing many of her body parts, but not her breasts or pubic area. There were some sex-crazed show-stopper exhibit titles, too, like “Man Overcomes Years of Sexual Abuse by Creating Art” at David Leonardis Gallery, and “Artifacts of Sexual Perversity” and “Strangled With Her Own Bra,” both at Artemisia.

There was some romantic counterpoint to all this raw sex. “Flo-Tilla,” a floating sculpture show on the Chicago River, was publicized with a photo of two angular ducklike creatures on the water, one light, one dark: a pair. And the press release for the “Sentimental Art Show”at Beret International Gallery showed a photo of a nice older middle-class couple laughing affectionately with each other. The release said the show “was created to fill . . . an aching, yearning chasm, deep within the soul.” It wasn’t all sentimentality, though. Even this show, the release promised, “will nurture back to life that which is withering inside us, hot and thirsty . . . ”